Here’s click-baity title it’s hard to resist: Science Still Can’t Explain This Biological Mystery, But Scientists Like to Pretend Otherwise. Oooh. What is that “biological mystery”? I want to know!
It’s a bad sign, though, when the author has to strain to stave off criticism before he gets around to spilling the beans.
Those of us who embrace science are growing increasingly impatient with religious and spiritual traditions. To us, absolute faith in claims scribed by backwards people thousands of years ago is delusional. We think it’s time for the faithful to get over themselves. The culture wars will end when it finally does. We’re waiting, though not patiently, because much is at stake.
Much is indeed at stake, but we’re actually waiting for the scientific to get over themselves. I say this as an atheist fully committed to science as the best method yet for discovering the nature of reality.
“I’m an atheist, so you know you can trust me” (oops, no, I can’t), “now you scientists better address my demands!” OK, I know who needs to get over themselves, and it isn’t the scientists here.
But finally, what is the mystery?
Between science and faith, I think faith is te more honest about what the scientific community seems perversely averse to explaining: Organisms: what they are and how they emerge from chemistry. Scientists explain organisms away or simply assume them without explaining them. At least the faithful recognize that life’s purposefulness needs explaining, even though their explanation is no explanation at all.
Organisms? One broad, very general word, and we have to explain it to him? Try this. Go up to a plumber, and say “Pipes. Pipes are a mystery. You can’t explain them to me.” Or a refrigerator repairman: “I am confused by cold. Explain it. I think religion is more honest than physics in describing temperature.” What can you say? And he does go on and on trying to emphasize his ignorance — he’s not much different from Bill O’Reilly saying, “Tide goes in, tide goes out, you can’t explain that.” He even has his very own quaint definition of what an organism is.
Unlike inanimate things, organisms engage in functional, fitted effort. Effort is purposeful work, an organism trying to achieve what is functional – of value to it, fitted or representative of its circumstances. Effort value and representation only make sense with respect to organisms. Organisms try to benefit themselves given their environment. Inanimate things don’t.
I’m just going to have to short-circuit this whole argument. The author, Jeremy Sherman, has simply reified the word “organism” to mean something discrete and unitary — it’s a thing that functions. That’s not very useful, especially since he’s setting it up as thing that cannot have a predecessor.
To a biologist, an organism is an integrated complex of replicating chemical reactions. It’s chemistry. The search for some vital distinction between chemistry and biology is over, there isn’t one, and they simply grade into one another. Sherman is erecting an imaginary wall and telling us we can’t get past it, but all the scientists are looking at him and wondering why they should take this challenge at all seriously — show us that there is a wall, don’t ask us to prove your fantasy is non-existent.
So look at viruses. Just chemistry, right? A bit of nucleic acid, a protein and carbohydrate coat. But they replicate, are functional, and are “fit” (I’m not sure that the “fitted” Sherman is talking about is at all similar to the “fitness” a biologist would discuss) in that some viruses are better at replicating than others. We can replicate RNA with just a nucleic acid strand, an enzyme, and a few cofactors.
Sherman nags that scientists have to get over themselves and come up with an explanation that satisfies him. The thing is, though, that lots of scientists are working on origin of life research, and are asking more sensible questions than “Organisms? WTF?”.
Seriously. Mr Sherman needs to get over himself and try reading any of the wealth of books on the subject. It’s not as if there is a shortage of scientists writing in an informed way about the origin of life comprehensibly for the public.